By Jose L. Garcia
“I never asked for this.”
Adam Jensen, protagonist of the games Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, laments his cybernetic prosthetics in the first trailer for Human Revolution, replete with images of him as Icarus with burning wings, and a stylized rendering of himself as the subject in Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp,” all of which suggests that the use of prostheses is not only counter to the normative body, but considered a destruction of the subject.
The Deus Ex series is not unique: science fiction is replete with cyborg bodies as both the sites of destruction and reification of the normative body and “augmentation” that turn the subject into something “better,” such as with the oft-quoted Six-Million Dollar Man tagline, “We can rebuild him […] Better than he was before,” or The Bionic Woman, described as, “Better. Faster. Stronger.” The cyborg subject is also applied as a divorce from one’s humanity, seen in Star Wars with Obi Wan Kenobi’s line about Darth Vader: “He’s more machine than man.” In either case, the implication is clear: something of the original human is lost through the process of prosthesis implementation, even if is portrayed as “enhancement.”
While a number of stories complicate the idea of the cyborg, there has been (comparatively) little critical exploration of cyborg bodies in disability studies until relatively recently. Yet, such analyses are of critical importance for understanding how the visual language of prosthesis has evolved. At this juncture of the cyborg and disability sits Kimiko Ross, the protagonist of Arryn Diaz’s webcomic, Dresden Codak. Ross prominently features prosthetic body parts, and the ways in which Diaz sets up scenes with Ross grab from the spectrum of cyborg subjecthood. These range from frank dealings with images of disability, images of power and “augmentation,” and even sexuality (the latter not overt, but noticeable enough to be said to sit within that tradition of sexualized cyborg subjecthood, similar to the opening sequence to the 1995 Ghost in the Shell film, which lingers on images of the naked cyborg body at several points). The specific frames that centre on Ross’ body create a network of significations that both reifies and frustrates three aspects of a representation: the cyborg, the traumatised body, and the disabled body.
Consciously or not, Diaz’s comic trades in the existing visual language of cyborg bodies and its adjacent fields: disability, femininity, and political alienation. Much more pointedly, Diaz engages the embodiment of disability with Ross, echoing Tasha Chemel’s narrative approach. The embodiment of disability gives the disabled subject the room to explore the nature of one’s own experience of disability, how impairment does or does not affect one’s life, and how one engages with their approach to the self (Chemel 118). Ross falls within this cell of disability discourse, asserting her own body and her own unique experiences while acknowledging that she is a cyborg and never minimizing her impairment. While she never engages a specifically narrative approach, she does still acknowledge her relationship with her prosthetics as her own, rarely feeling the need to justify why she has designed them the way she has (even bragging that she did indeed design and build them herself, as in the eighth instalment of the “Dark Science” arc, “The Department of Inquisition”). Much like Chemel’s approach, Ross will not shy away from acknowledging the relationship she has with her body, just as Chemel will acknowledge that her relationship to her blindness is messy and complex (Chemel 119).
Much of Ross’ status within the comic is centred on her body: images abound of Ross building her prostheses (Diaz, “Final Form”), Ross confined to a hospital bed (Diaz, “Epilogue”), Ross surrounded by cables (Diaz, “Eloi”), and sometimes in a wheelchair or hopping around on the floor after things without her prostheses (or her wheelchair) (Diaz, “Assistance”). After a particularly nasty episode within the Dark Science storyline, Ross completely replaces her body, leaving her brain as the only remaining organic component. Rather than leaning into the Ship of Theseus trope, however, Ross gets something of a superhero training sequence, panels of her performing new feats of strength and agility showcase her new abilities (Diaz, “48 Senses and Counting”). The invocation of the trope of the superhero, combined with the images of disabled subjecthood, present the reader with a disquieting sense that the normative body has been reified.
The most obvious place to begin with Ross, then, is the moment of trauma when she becomes disabled, shot by a robot that vaporises her left arm, both legs, and the left side of her face (Diaz, “Kimiko Battles the Pink Robots”). At this pivotal point in the narrative, Ross is caught attempting to mediate between time-travellers who seek to colonise the past and a machine intelligence that considers the colonists irrelevant. That experience of trauma is the first transformation Ross undergoes in becoming a mediator. In speaking to the machine intelligence, the titular Hob, itself a mediator between the colonisers and the machine intelligence known as Mother, Ross is shown physically connected to the machine in order to speak to it. The manner of her connection and the blocking of the scene invokes a visual of Ross’s damaged and sexualised body, suspended by cables in her connection to the machine as she communicates with. However, within the narrative itself, the readers are to understand that the nature of this connection is not by Ross’s choice. The panel implies violence against the traumatised body made all the more disquieting because of the intersection of the visual language of sexual violence it applies to the scene, seen below in the “Eloi” page:
While the choice to have her be depicted as nude in the panel may be read as a stylistic choice to signal the vulnerability of her positioning between the two conflicting forces in the Hob arc, it also plays directly into Haraway’s conceptualisation of the cyborg, using the visual language of sexual violence and trauma to depict Ross as being forced into a subject position against her will. She is, like many other cyborg characters, now connected to other machines for maintenance and repair. The body, in this visual language, becomes a secondary object, a mass of matter that only needs to be kept running, and is often traumatically worked on as if it were a broken-down car, translated into problems of coding and readout (Haraway 303).
The second stage of Ross’s transformation is her emergence as a temporary hybrid of machine and human, joining with the Hob robot and acting as the new mediator. The nature of her transformation is hinted at in a prior page, in which Ross, as she battles the colonisers, notes that the mechanization of nature (exemplified by a hybridization of a flower and machine) that so terrifies the colonisers is not destructive, but symbiotic. Just before her trauma, Ross discovers that Hob “computerises” organic material and, rather than “undermining biology,” renders organic beings “healthier than usual,” implying that there is an idealized form of biology that can be reached by joining with technology (Diaz, “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell”). Indeed, when Ross emerges as the final form of the mediator, the panel is framed with Ross towering over machine hands, all reaching up to her new, transformed state, seen as something more than “human” in “The Rising Sun:”
Framing Ross as an otherworldly being with new prostheses that suggest both an angel (with the wings) and a sex worker on a stage (Ross’s pose, the reaching robotic hands, and the upward angle of the panel), the comic manages to create an idealised version of the cyborg body, bearing the hallmarks of bodily trauma while asserting the disabled body as a valid vehicle for erotic idealisation. In doing so, the scene turns the addition of prosthesis into a spectacle that fundamentally changes the prosthetics user in the eyes of those who observe them with little regard for the person’s own experience.
Of particular note is the nature of Ross’s appearance, commented on frequently by herself and by others. Indeed, right after she recovers from being the mediator (her prosthetics disappear after she reconciles hostilities between the two factions), she is later seen in a library, having designed her own new prosthetics. The scene presents some of the first efforts by Diaz to place Ross within an embodied experience of disability, with her commenting on how everything works and that the prosthetics, her “best invention,” are designed for functionality rather than affect (Diaz, “The End”). The beginning of her experience of disability on her own terms, by creating her own prostheses, puts Ross in the position of cyborg subjecthood that asserts her right to her own experience, especially when contrasted to a character she meets, who serves as an analogue for insensitive responses to prostheses. The unnamed character is the first of a series of Ross’s encounters with her own cyborg body through the eyes and the stares of others. The common thread that binds these interactions is Ross’ consistent attitude of having the ultimate say in her subjecthood and how she is perceived, as well as how she chooses to use her prosthetics.
Placing all of that in the second story arc of Dresden Codak, Dark Science, Ross’s embodiment becomes a more self-consciously political act. The nature of living, especially in the hyper-bureaucratic setting of Dark Science, the city Nephilopolis, places Ross immediately in an underclass of bodies with prostheses, known within the story world as “mezzodes” (or the sometimes pejorative version, “mez” in “Strange Trainfellows”). Indeed, the first character she encounters comments on her prosthetic eye as “beautiful” and her legs and left arm as “crude” (Diaz, “Strange Trainfellows”). Further still, Ross is classified as a weather balloon by the officious Department of Inquisition (Diaz, “Insufficient Credibility”), and witnesses several instances of discrimination against Nephilopolis’ citizens with prosthetics, from casual dismissal to one character calling her a “pig-headed mez” directly to her face (Diaz, “Caspar”).
The road to Ross’s prostheses takes on much more overt tones of the disabled body as a damaged or broken body, particularly after a brutal fight with the antagonists of the arc, which leaves her without her prostheses and in a wheelchair, hopping around for things with no real regard for the way such an act might look and disregarding all advice to “slow down” given by other characters in “Assistance:”
The acknowledgement by others that her encounter with one of the antagonists might have inflicted yet more trauma on Ross is not as important to the story as Ross’s right to her own lived, embodied experience. Additionally, how Ross acknowledges this trauma, almost off-handedly (if not for the massive internal damage she sustained), speaks more to her understanding that her own experience, so intimately aware of her body and its needs that while others may good-naturedly wish for her to “slow down,” she knows best the pace she can maintain.
Pointed commentary on the appearance of Ross’s body as an obvious prosthetic culminates in a scene where Ross is found escaping after a battle with the Department of Congruity’s police force. In the middle of stealing from several crates that are being taken away as evidence, one of the officials, Nod, himself a cyborg, questions Ross’s choice of appearance, resulting in the following exchange in “Advanced Conflict Resolution:”
Given the ability to reify the normative body in its entirety, hiding all evidence of prostheses, Ross’s choice asserts her own experience of embodiment and disability. Rather than seek to build prosthetics that would achieve some political signification of normative subjecthood, Ross elected to build a body that reflects and fits her unique needs, asserting both her right to her own experience of disability, and her right to choose just how she engages with that experience.
Nephilopolis’ focused, individualised regulation on every citizen makes Ross’ response all the more political because of her marginalised status. References to the hierarchical social distinction between normative bodies and non-normative bodies indicate that social class is a recurring motif within the comic, and Diaz creates Nephilopolis as a repressive structure with non-normative bodies at the bottom and normative bodies at the top. Building upon the city arbitrarily classifying her as a weather balloon, there are several more instances of the city struggling and failing to account for Ross’ concrete status within the stringent and heavily unequal world of the Dark Science arc, such as attempting to classify her as “a nuclear furnace that requires a small watercraft permit” (Diaz, “The Cyborg District”) or “a mid-size sedan” (Diaz, “The Complexities of Vocation”). In several large splash pages such as the below excerpt from “Believe Everything You Read” meant to portray the propaganda arm of Nephilopolis, there are even starker examples of the inequality between the “mezzode” underclass and the upper-class of normative bodies:
The splash pages, as a device, keep “headlines” such as those pictured above relegated to small corners of the page, focusing more on the propagandised versions of larger events in the chapter. Advertisements that feature prominently (and work as a satire of Nephilopolis) make the near-burial of these two stories all the more sinister. Including these two headlines (and even choosing to have the phrase “Mezzode Rights” in quotes, delegitimizing the term) depict an ongoing struggle between the machinery of the state and the oppressed cyborg class. As a whole, Dresden Codak applies a visual language of prostheses as indicative of a necropolitical state of injury (Mbembe 21), in which those with prosthetics become impoverished underclass forced to trade their body parts in order to survive in a hypercapitalist society. This is evidenced by the exchange on the below page between two oft-seen characters with prostheses:
The character with the camera for a head, named Enoch, earlier scoffs, “Pitiful mezzodes. Selling off your humanity just because you didn’t save up,” only to be corrected by another character who comments that all three of them are “mezzodes” (Diaz, “The Cyborg District”). Coupling that dialogue with a panel showing Enoch putting a noodle up to his lens and letting it fall back into his cup as a performance of eating speaks to an understanding of the use of prosthetics as representative of an exploited working class that has been indoctrinated into their state of injury, made all the more sinister when coupled with the scope of surveillance Nephilopolis employs on its citizens, particularly seen in a panel where Ross is admonished by the city itself for engaging in an activity that deviates from what Nephilopolis “recommends” for its citizens, as seen in the below excerpt, “Shadows:”
It is at this junction, the use of prosthetics as visual indicators of inequality, as well as Ross’s prosthetics as an example of the embodied experience, that attention must turn to what one can make of these two threads.
To make no bones about it, Ross is a cyborg. The nature of her cyborg experience is a critical entry point, and heavily implies the social experience of Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. Ross’ political existence as a series of contradictions within Nephilopolis (a car, a weather balloon, a terrorist, a hero, an heiress, a “mez,” the most powerful cyborg alive), and the meta-textual and seemingly clashing depictions of disability and prosthetics as both an important aspect of the embodied self with disability and as visual metaphor for the state of injury in hyper-capitalism, are themselves emblematic of Haraway’s explanation of the cyborg as a social reality, an experience where people do not shy away from permanent partial identity and contradictory standpoints (Haraway 295). Both depictions exist, and while the usage of prosthetics and images of disability may still smack of appropriating the experience of disability in order to make a point that does away with the very human concerns of how to represent the disabled body and the right to disability representation, that is the crux of the cyborg discourse as Haraway conceived of it. These two depictions of prostheses and the cyborg can cohabitate in the same space while also acknowledging that applying disability as a metaphor for marginalisation is problematic. To live with disability is to be marginalised by the state due to the non-normative nature of the body, but that does not mean one can appropriate that image to metaphorise marginalisation in general. However, that conflict between Diaz’s use of images of disability and of prosthetics in Dresden Codak is precisely the kind of permanent contradiction that Haraway’s cyborg allows for. To take those clashing usages of the visual language of prosthetics and disability is to, in effect, force the reader themselves to critically engage both with the history of usage of disability as a visual marker of marginalisation and difference, as well as to juxtapose that history with a depiction of embodied prosthetic experience on the terms of the prosthetics user—to have them explicitly assert their body as neither normative or non-normative, but their own body and nothing more.
Alison Kafer’s examination of the cyborg as an image of the crip in the chapter “The Cyborg and the Crip: Critical Encounters” from Feminist, Queer, Crip, begins with the understanding that people with physical disabilities that require assisted mobility are often spoken of as cyborgs with little regard for the complications within that distinction. Arguing that the cyborg can be a powerful tool to grapple with the endless facets of embodied experience and its clashes with models of disability in common parlance, Kafer finds within this blanket terminology and lack of distinction lies an erasure of disability and the vibrant range of experiences of disability, and a fetishisation of prostheses. Ross’ assertions of her own rights to bodily experience and prosthetics modification falls in line with Kafer’s analysis of the cyborg as not necessarily needing a trauma narrative for it to be folded into a blanket experience of marginalisation, but instead as a tool to create a spectrum of experience that can maintain its own uniquely atomized epistemologies of subjecthood and disability while inviting political and social community to reach shared goals (Kafer 106). Ross’ straightforward answer about her prosthetics and their appearance—that she simply likes them—lets her situate herself within the umbrella of the cyborg, but on her terms, not the cyborg’s. Ross does not need to strive for either socially convenient “invisible” prosthetics, nor does she see a point to ostentatious prosthetics in order to situate herself in direct opposition to the marginalising forces of Nephilopolis. To do either would be to directly engage with her cyborg subjecthood on someone else’s terms and at someone else’s mercy. The more important political signification of cyborg subjecthood, for Ross, is to tailor her prosthetics to her own unique needs, bypassing the binary of prosthetics politics entirely to engage a more fruitful and vivid reality of life with disability, one that invites the broad spectrum of embodiment.
Though Ross’ prosthetics stray far from the steampunk aesthetic, the fact that she maintains their non-biological aesthetic by design falls in line with Kathryn Crowther’s analysis of steampunk prosthetics from her chapter, “Like Clockwork,” from the book Steampunk Pasts, Presents, and Futures, wherein she argues that steampunk prosthetics, for their openly mechanical appearance, destabilize the notion that bodies are uniform, whole, and normate (Crowther 87). Ross maintains only some of her prosthetics as organic-looking, mostly to her preference, but her challenge to the normative bodies around her in Dresden Codak is not one of antithesis. Though Ross’ prosthetics do not share the aesthetics of steampunk, they follow its ethos, namely in prioritizing the visually obvious prosthetic. Ross, again, is not choosing her prosthetics’ appearance as a response to the normalising technologies of Nephilopolis; she is simply choosing to build her prosthetics how she would like, and she prefers to keep her prosthetics visible, much like the openly mechanical look of steampunk. Ross’ engagement with her prosthetics, just as steampunk, destabilises the image of the normative body, but much more importantly, it does so on Ross’ own terms. Ross herself says in a short aside, “Cyborg Time with Kimiko Ross,” that she engages a Hegelian dialectical model for her experience, taking the thesis and antithesis of what is cyborg and creating a synthesis (Diaz, “Cyborg Time with Kimiko Ross”).
The use of the disabled body as a representation of the necropolitical state of injury sets up a challenging dilemma in terms of analysis, for one must at least attempt to reconcile Dresden Codak’s engagement of the cyborg as a vector for understanding the embodied experience of disability and the cultural baggage carried by the image of the disabled body as a generalized political metaphor. To simply say that Haraway and Kafer’s analyses of the cyborg allow room for contradiction is not enough. Something must be done with the contradiction.
The application of the cyborg in Dresden Codak as a necropolitical underclass at the mercy of a wealthy upper class and a bureaucratic state may be laid smoothly into an analysis of Ross herself as a depiction of embodiment by looking at its metatextual possibilities. The state of injury inflicted upon the mezzodes of Nephilopolis reflects the biopolitical demarcations that attempt to regulate disability. Sovereignty, once concerned with the right to let live or make die, now concerns itself with which bodies are viable, and often creates a power imbalance where the normative body is viable, and the non-normative body is non-viable and thus does not require full recognition within the state. “Mezzodes,” much in the same way queer bodies, minoritised bodies, female bodies, and bodies with disability are judged to be less-than by the forces of the state, are cast off as expendable, sub-human, and degenerate (Foucault 252). Rather than assume that Diaz’s use of the cyborg as a political underclass is simply a comics artist dealing in tired tropes of disability appropriation, it becomes one of the more powerful depictions of the ways in which the social experience of disability and the disabled body must struggle against the normalizing technologies of the state, which define disabled bodies as divergent, non-viable, and thus attempt to regulate them due to their difference in the eyes of the bureaucracy.
Of greatest concern is the parallel thread of political signification that Diaz paints onto the non-normative body in the comic, but that underlying tension is resolved remembering that the non-normative body is a site of ongoing struggle against the regulation of the state. Ross constantly runs into boundaries that Nephilopolis sets for those with prosthetics, such as meters that measure how much of someone is prosthetic (Diaz, “The Department of Distraction”) and news articles that continually marginalise her for her prostheses. Such a blanket statement, though, cannot be made while erasing the right of the non-normative subject to advocate for themselves. However, to deny that the systems that regulate the body with disability are not marginalising forces is to be unwilling to confront the reality of the normalising technologies that make up a state’s biopower. Diaz’s application of the cyborg as a visual metaphor for these normalising technologies, such as with the “suicide” of the mezzode rights activist or the shrinking of available space for mezzodes in Nephilopolis, is a useful and valid metaphor for the inherently political reality of life with disability: it is seen as outside the realm of the normative and therefore “viable” bodies that can be made useful to the state. Their labour is seen as worth less [US Dept of Labor Federal Operations Handbook, Sec 64(a)], their bodies and experience as deniable (Garland-Thomson 14), and accommodations seen as troublesome (California State Legislature SB 692). In that political language, then, we can finally rejoin the image of the cyborg as a useful metaphor for the body with disability, mindful of their political existences. The cyborg not only allows for the housing of seemingly conflicting significations, but can be extended to make this joining of the visual languages of prosthesis and cyborg rightfully complex, calling upon consumers of cyborg media to look into the representations of cyborg bodies as reminders of the political lives of those who are considered non-normative by the state: people with disability, queer people, people of colour, and more. Each brings a unique experience within that spectrum of cyborg subjecthood, each important as part of that diverse collective of cyborg experience, sharing stories on their own terms to build solidarity among those deemed by the state to be non-viable (Arkansas State General Assembly HB 1570), less in need of care (Milman, “The Life-Altering Effects Heat is Having on American Children”), and, ultimately, expendable. To read the comic with this understanding of the cyborg as a political image, then, is a part of a multi-faceted effort to ensure a different future, a better, more generative, and more inclusive future that does away with the marginalising technologies of the state.
Ultimately, what does it mean when an artist uses the iconography of disability? Is the cyborg now only within the purview of disability, or must we also reckon with the cyborg as a shifting image, akin to Haraway’s original conception, malleable and useful for understanding the social experience of women in a broad sense, but limited in its supremacy as a symbol for the disabled body. Like Kimiko Ross in the Hob arc, the cyborg is pulled at by different forces that threaten to render meaningless one of the most powerful visual symbols for the disabled subject—one which can still be applied, reshaped, and revisited, over and over again, to bring to the reader yet a new understanding and yet a new facet of disabled embodiment. The old history of the cyborg as a damaged figure, once whole and now left as a disparate assembly of mere parts, will follow its usage whenever it is seen. It will always require the remaking of the subject and the application of prostheses. Kimiko Ross will still have to be shot by a laser to build her prosthetics.
The ongoing language of images that surrounds the cyborg will still destroy the body in order to rebuild it. The difference, then, is whether an artist chooses to engage in the old tropes that continue to pilfer from the language of disability to symbolise the body as in the process of changing into something new. An artist must make the choice to either play the amputated subject in a wheelchair as an image of mourning that will be overcome due to its non-normativeness, or an image of embodiment, simply another stage of life within a body. Perhaps, then, Kimiko out of her wheelchair, hopping around as she reaches for a snack, is an effort to remove her from the narrative of overcoming disability. Perhaps Kimiko Ross hops so easily simply because this is how she has engaged with her body for a long time, and there is no better authority on her own body, its needs and its capabilities, than herself. We ourselves may not so easily drop to a tile floor to leap after things. We may balk at seeing her do it because it seems, on the surface, to poke fun at the disabled body. And it is at that moment that we must look at the gulfs between reader, writer, and character, and realize that the artist may intend that moment as an expression of Ross’s own embodied experience. She is so connected to her experience of disability that to move around with or without prostheses is simply a matter of course. To design something specifically for her own use may happen upon the word “improvement,” and may require of us as readers to ask ourselves if there may be room to disconnect “improve” from its old ableist signified to make space for the person who, living with a prosthesis, may want to define their own embodied experience for themselves, whether it involves advocating for more systemic efforts at including disabled voices to create a genuinely inclusive lived social experience or designing a prosthetic for someone who would like one that performs better than their current prosthetic. Perhaps an artist can engage the image of the disabled body to reflect the ways in which bodies are regulated by the state according to their adherence to some state-approved norm. Perhaps those two ends of the spectrum of prosthetics representation are not mutually exclusive. To want a prosthetic that serves one’s needs better need not fall into old traps of ableism and reification of the normative body. Someone who wants a bottle of mustard at the ready whenever they need it might finally be able to advocate for a prosthesis that allows for as many types of mustard as they want.
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© Jose L. Garcia. All rights reserved.